The Italian track which first featured auto racing in 1954 is best known for hosting Formula 1 races. Imola was the site of the Italian Grand Prix in 1980 and subsequently hosted the San Marino Grand Prix between 1981 and 2006. Although Indycars have never turned a wheel on the track, numerous Indycar stars have raced on the circuit during their F1 careers. These include Juan Pablo Montoya, Takuma Sato, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve. Additionally, Nigel Mansell earned two victories at Imola before becoming an Indycar champion in 1993.
Imola appears on the Lionheart schedule for the first time and many league members have spent the last two weeks learning – and hopefully mastering – the challenging circuit. With only two of twenty-four rounds in the books for 2017, the visit to Italy presents a major opportunity in the wide-open championship battle.
It's no surprise that Jake Wright will take the green flag on Wednesday night as the favourite. Wright won six of seven road races last season and he's quickly found his way to the top of the charts in every Imola practice session thus far. However, the two-time defending league champion finds himself in the unusual position of actually needing this victory. Currently sitting 22nd overall in the championship after a DNF in the season opener, Wright can not afford to have any unexpected surprises if he wants to get back to the top of the standings.
There are several sim racers who could end up thwarting Wright's plans in victory lane and two of the most likely challengers come from the Team #NailedIt paddock.
Michael Gray seems to do well when Lionheart leaves North America and he is understandably excited about the series' return to Europe. Last season, it was at Brands Hatch in England that Gray managed an upset victory over Wright. Gray has posted some impressive times thus far in practice and he could pull off another victory this week if he maintains that strong pace and nails his pit strategy in the race.
Meanwhile, Dan Geren saw his first-ever road course win fall through his fingers last season at Phillip Island. Geren managed to out-qualify Wright and showed that he actually had stronger pace while leading 13 laps. However, a quick self-spin was all it took to allow Wright past and Geren was unable to get back around him. As always, Geren has been turning hundreds of laps in preparation for his first visit to Imola. It remains to be seen if he can challenge for a win but look for the Iowa-based sim racer to be near the front of the field when the green flag flies.
In addition to the familiar names who are expected to do well in this first road race of the season there are also a lot of unknowns. In the past, the series has featured a majority of drivers who were more comfortable on ovals. However, almost all of the new additions to the roster this season are just the opposite.
Dustin Wardlow proved his prowess on the road by winning the title in the Lionheart Challenge Series during the winter. Travis Jegerlehner finished fourth overall in that series and earned a victory while James Paulson was also a solid threat each week. Meanwhile, current points leader Andrew Kinsella and fellow rookie Michael Goodman have already shown that they bring a strong pace to any track the series visits.
When you mix those new faces in with returning talents like Jonathan Goke, James Krahula, Brian Yaczik and George Adams, it seems obvious that Lionheart road races will reach a new level of competition throughout the field.
One notable absence this week will be Ryan Otis who ironically may pose the biggest threat to Jake Wright on the road this season. Otis, who is unable to attend this week due to travel, dominated a recent Lionheart Retro Series race at Watkins Glen. Otis is currently sitting second overall in the championship and the missed race will undoubtedly have an impact on his position in the overall standings.
Regardless of their results, several league members will have reason to celebrate during their visit to Italy. Joe Hassert will make his league-leading 75th career start at Imola while Chris Lanini will make career start number 50 on the legendary road course.
The HPP Simulation Grand Prix of Imola will be broadcast live on the Global Sim Racing Channel (GSRC) and iRacing Live on March 29th beginning at 10:35PM ET. The league champion at the end of the season will be awarded with a set of HPP 3P-PRX-SE pedals valued at $1247.00.